Fiction and the Immigrant Experience

Provided for his students by Professor John Lye

This has been a century of enormous movement of peoples to other countries, largely in search of better economic conditions and more hope. The immigrant experience is widespread, and requires understanding, as people struggle to maintain their sense of themselves and their values while adapting to new cultural environments. "The history of immigration," writes one writer, Oscar Handlin, "is the history of alienation and its consequences....For every freedom won, a tradition lost. For every second generation assimilated, a first generation in one way or another spurned. For the gains of goods and services, an identity lost, and uncertainty found."1.

Thus imaginative writing regarding this experience may, despite different cultural traditions, be placed in a single category as the writers "share a common experience: the experience of growing up in an immigrant family in an alien, often hostile, country."2 The lives of immigrants and their children, and the texts that examine and illumine them, have certain shared themes and patterns.

Common themes:

Post-colonial concepts such as mimicry, hybridity, the Other and of course identity are all relevant to immigrant experience. Notions more specific to immigrant experience are:


1. Quoted in Thomas Wheeler, The Immigrant Experience. Baltimore, MD. Penguin, 1971.

2. Emmanuel S. Nelson, "Troubled Journeys: Indian Immigrant Experience in Kamala Markandaya's Nowhere Man and Bharati Mukherjee's Darkness" in Anne Rutherford, ed.,From Commonwealth to Post-Colonia. Sidney, NSW, Australia. Dangeroo Press, 1992.

3. "The Schizophrenic Imagination" in Rutherford, From Commonwealth to Post-Colonial.

4. Mukherjee quotes are from the "Introduction" to Darkness.